Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sniffing Around

I love surfing other food blogs; they give me ideas, inspiration, and motivation. Here's some of the best of the Internet from the past week or so:

Ever since I went to England, I've had a thing for shortbread. Nicole of Baking Bites has posted a delicious-looking recipe for Strawberry Pecan Shortbread Crumble Bars, and I can't wait to satisfy my undying hunger for shortbread with this new twist. And what an appetizing photo to drool over!

Isn't fresh fruit just wonderful? Berries are probably my favorite, so, as you can imagine, summer blogsurfing yields a ton of berry recipes for every reader, especially me, to enjoy, including Raspberry Buttermilk Pancakes over at Use Real Butter. Jen, the blog's author, added some particularly stunning photos of nature, family, and food to go along with the recipe, so be sure to check those out, too!

But enough about berries, delicious as they may be, and on to cherries. Now, I don't particularly like to eat cherries in their purest form, but I do love them in pie! Deb of Smitten Kitchen recently featured a Sweet Cherry Pie that I'm just dying to make! (Deb is fearless with a cherry pitter, not like me, who wimps out and buys canned cherries for pie.) I don't know how she takes food photos like this, and just look at that flaky pie crust. Mmm...

Okay, I may have been a little hasty in that last paragraph--I don't like cherries, for sure, but I've never tried them in cake. Enter the Cherry Jam Cake at Culinary Concoctions by Peabody; this cake looks very tasty, with a very deep flavor due to that lovely syrupy glaze, which Peabody captures perfectly in her photography. Not to mention a great Saturday Night Live reference that made me smile.

And finally, I guess we have to have something savory to round everything out, don't we? Well, have I found a sandwich for you: Croque-madame, found at The Way the Cookie Crumbles. I admit, I've never had a Croque-madame, but this one looks suitably rich and, to sum it up, amazing. My mouth is watering just looking at that first photo...and all the other ones, of course!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Best Pie Crust, Ever.

Pie crust and I have a checkered relationship. One the one hand, I absolutely love pie, and the crust is my favorite part; however, my attempts to create really good crust (the old-fashioned way--I did have success with CI's vodka pie crust) have failed in various ways. Flaky and not tender, neither flaky nor tender, à la cardboard--just disastrous. Until now!

Introducing the secret to good pie crust, courtesy of Alanna Kellogg of Kitchen Parade (and steward of the excellent blog, A Veggie Venture): more fat, less water! When the fat is cut into the flour, it both contributes to flakiness and protects the precious gluten from developing too much, and the minimal amount of water ensures a tender pie crust.

This was, without a doubt, the best pie I had ever made. And want to know a secret? I used canned filling. I know, I know, I'm a horrible person, but I really wanted to showcase the crust (and besides, homemade blueberry pie filling can be tricky, not to mention expensive). Without further ado, I would like to share the life-saving recipe...

Oh, and by the way, I got my pastry blender, which helps "cut" the fat into the flour, for $10 at Williams-Sonoma, and it is just wonderful. If you are looking for one, make sure it has blades and not wires; it will be most effective that way.

Flaky Tender Pie Crust
Adapted from Kitchen Parade
Makes enough pastry for a double-crust 9-inch pie.

280 grams (2 cups) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold and cut into 16 pieces
1/2 Crisco shortening, cold
Egg wash of 1 yolk + 1 Tbsp water

1. In large bowl, mix sugar, salt, and one cup (140 g) of flour.
2. With pastry blender or two knives, cut the butter into the dry ingredients.
3. Add shortening and cut into butter/flour mixture.
4. Lightly stir in the rest of the flour.
5. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons water.
6. With an open palm, press flour against side of bowl. Rub hands together and let damp flour fall back into mixture.
7. Add water, drops at a time, until mixture just barely holds together. Dry crumbs are good!!
8. Gather dough into ball, divide in two, and flatten into disks. Chill dough for a few minutes.
9. Take one piece out of the refrigerator and roll out into a 12-inch circle on a lightly floured surface, on a silicone mat, or between two pieces of plastic wrap. Transfer to pie plate and bake (if prebaking is required) or return to refrigerator.
10. Prepare pie filling and place in bottom crust.
11. Roll out the other crust and place on top. Seal and flute. Cut vents in top and brush with egg wash.
12. Bake as your favorite pie recipe directs.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Review: The Best of America's Test Kitchen 2008

I trust the good folks behind Cook's Illustrated more than any other authority when it comes to cooking and baking. This book offers the best of a year of extensive recipe testing, revamping, and publishing from all the America's Test Kitchen publications, including Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country magazines, not to mention the various other assorted volumes published throughout the year.

Well, I have spent the past few hours perusing this extensive cookbook, and I already have so many ideas on things to make. This book, in the spirit of America's Test Kitchen, explains the science behind ingredients, methods, and unusual-sounding ideas. As an avid baker, I know that I will soon be making the Chocolate Blackout Cake, Lemon Layer Cake, and Big and Chewy Low-Fat Chocolate Chip Cookies (a lower-fat version of the CI chewy chocolate chip cookies published recently). This book is well worth the money, and if you want a great variety of recipes and techniques, all of which are quite solid, then this cookbook is the one to get!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Amazing Fruit Tart

Father's Day weather was unbelievable this year--nothing short of a beautiful summer day. I decided to bake a summery dessert in honor of my wonderful father, and a fresh fruit tart, the likes of which I had previously sampled only a couple of times in my life, fit the bill.

A fruit tart is really quite simple in its components: a sweet tart crust is brushed with melted chocolate, filled with vanilla pastry cream, and topped with fresh fruit. An optional apricot glaze keeps the fruit nice and shiny, but I am quite wary of apricots and did not elect to use them in any form in this dessert. I'm a chicken when it comes to these things!

I took the recipe mainly from a wonderful web site that I often visit, Joy of Baking, whose recipes are always well written and spot on. I did modify the tart crust because my sister is allergic to wheat; as such, I used a gluten-free flour in place of the all-purpose flour. Moreover, a touch of vanilla helped to enhance the crust's sweetness and brighten the flavor a bit. I also discovered that I do not, in fact, have a tart pan (!), so I instead baked the tart in a glass pie plate (gasp!), which worked out great.

For a pastry cream that did not include flour, I used a recipe from another terrific, albeit somewhat larger, site, Allrecipes. I know cornstarch can be substituted for flour, but I didn't want to mess up any delicate ratios because I wanted this dessert to be perfect.

And the fruit tart was, in fact, perfect. The crust was sweet and cookie-like, and the melted chocolate and vanilla pastry cream were perfect complements to each other. This was my first time making pastry cream, and it came out extremely well, although next time, I will boil the cream a little bit less so it isn't quite as thick. But it was still delicious. And the fresh fruit on top was a nice touch, a nod to good health, even without the apricot glaze. Enjoy!

Fresh Fruit Tart
Adapted from Joy of Baking and Allrecipes.
Makes one 9-inch tart.

For the crust:

210 grams (1 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

**Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.**

1. Have ready a 9-inch tart pan or pie plate.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and salt.
3. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until combined. Mix in egg and vanilla to incorporate.
4. Add dry ingredients and stir until just blended.
5. Gather dough into a ball and flatten into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
6. Remove dough from refrigerator and roll out, between two pieces of plastic wrap, into an 11- or 12-inch circle.
7. Peel off top layer of plastic wrap and, with the aid of the remaining piece of plastic wrap, transfer to tart pan (or pie plate). Peel off remaining plastic wrap.
8. Adjust dough so that it fits nicely in the pan, conforming to all edges, ridges, etc. Just make it look pretty!
9. Place pan in refrigerator and chill for 20 minutes.
10. Prick all over with fork and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until crust is golden brown and fully baked.
11. Turn oven off; you won't need it again!
12. Admire your finished crust and set on a wire rack to cool.
Makes one 9-inch tart shell.

For the pastry cream:
2 cups milk (I used skim milk)
1/4 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
1 whole egg
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. In medium saucepan, combine milk and 1/4 cup sugar. Bring to boil over medium-high heat.
2. Just before that mixture boils, stir together the egg yolks and egg.
3. Combine cornstarch and 1/3 cup sugar, and whisk into egg mixture.
4. When milk mixture boils, add it very, very slowly, whisking constantly, to the egg mixture (so as not to cook the eggs).
5. When mixtures are combined, pour into saucepan (don't stop whisking) and return to heat.
6. Whisk vigorously for thirty seconds, or until cream is suitably thickened.
7. Remove from heat and whisk in butter and vanilla extract until all ingredients are combined.
8. Push through fine-mesh strainer into large bowl.
9. Cover with plastic wrap, placing the plastic wrap directly on the surface of the cream (to prevent skin forming).
10. Place in refrigerator and chill for several hours.
Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

For the assembly:
One 9-inch tart shell
1/2 cup to 1 cup semisweet or milk chocolate chips
About 2 1/2 cups pastry cream
Strawberries, blueberries, etc., for topping

1. Remove the tart shell from the tart pan by holding the tart pan and pushing up the bottom, letting the ring slip down your arm. Skip this step if you have a pie plate, of course.
2. Melt chocolate and brush on bottom of tart shell.
3. While chocolate is cooling, take pastry cream out of the refrigerator and let it warm up.
4. After about ten minutes, take a spoon to the cream. If it's too firm, mash it a bit with the spoon until it's softer. If it's too watery, well, sorry. It'll still taste delicious.
5. Spoon pastry cream into tart shell.
6. Arrange fruit as desired on top.
7. Capture the beauty with photography before serving to a crowd filled with amazement, wonder, and excitement.